Sunday, January 21, 2018

Wyclef and Canibus Spendin' Spielberg Money

Major record labels just have too much money.  That's the only records like this exist: "Another One Bites the Dust" by Queen with additional vocals by Wyclef Jean featuring Pras and Free.  Or the way it's credited on the version I bought: Queen/ Wyclef Jean featuring Pras, Canibus and Free.  I don't know jack about musical genres outside of Hip-Hop, but even I'm familiar with Queen's rock classic "Another One Bites the Dust" from 1980.  It's the one that reprises the bassline from Chic's "Good Times," which Grandmaster Flash famously mixed together on "The Great Adventures Of..."  But this one's from 1998 on Dreamworks Records.  DreamWorks is the label Steven Spielberg co-owns with two other media moguls.  DreamWorks is much better known for their DreamWorks Pictures division, which makes blockbuster movies.  But yeah, they have also have a record label for nonsense like this, when their films aren't burning through enough cash on their own.

Now, the way they write that: "Queen with additional vocals by..." sure makes it sound like a historic rap/ rock collaboration of the giants, along the lines of when Bob Dylan made a record with Kurtis Blow, or more recently when Kanye West teamed up with Paul McCartney, when Eminem remixed "Stan" with Elton John, that time LL Cool J made "Accidental Racist" with Randy Travis, or... wait a minute.  These collaborations aren't historic; they're terrible!  Massive miscalculations of celebrity culture and ego that should always be shot down at the conception stage.  But hey, this record isn't actually one of those; it's a fake rap/ rock collaboration.

Not that it was a serious hoax.  Anybody who'd be interested in laying down money for a Queen record would know that the band's lead, Freddie Mercury, had been dead for years.  And another core member had also passed away before this record.  That just leaves two guitar players or whatever, and I'm pretty sure they didn't play on this record either.  It doesn't sound like there's any new, live instrumentation at all.  Really, this is just Wyclef remixing Queen's old record to put himself on it.  That was really his entry way into hit records... after Lauryn's "Killing Them Softly" - which was cool but still kinda pointless as far as I'm concerned since Roberta Flack still sang it better - he just started doing "covers:" "No Woman, No Cry," "Gone 'Till November, "We Trying To Stay Alive," etc.

I know Hip-Hop has a legacy of making rap songs out of big records that were hits at the time, like Spyder D and Nu Shooz.  But I honestly think the fun of those records was that audiences were of course fans of those songs, and it was fun to hear the raps on the breaks.  "Erotic City Rapp" was made for fans of Prince's "Erotic City."  But in the 2000s, making hits off of records that were decades old, feels pretty sneaky, selling them to kids unfamiliar with the original.  The people most impressed with Coolio's "Fantastic Voyage" were the people who'd never heard of Lakeside.  So when I see Wyclef releasing "Guantanamera" as a single, it just feels like he's trying to pass off another song writer's talents as his own to kids who are encountering that chorus for the first time.  Especially since, like "Fantastic Voyage," he was just making versions worse than the originals.  Like, I'd rather listen to "I Can't Wait (To Rock the Mic)" than "I Can't Wait," because that's adding all these great rap elements which I love.  But Wyclef barely even raps; he just kind of mumbles a few low energy lines over the lulls.  I'd certainly rather hear Freddy Mercury belt out the lines, "how long can you stand the heat" than 'Clef, wouldn't you?

But okay, maybe that's just me being sour because I don't really vibe with Wyclef's energy.  Here, he obviously uses the instrumentation of the original, including its iconic bassline.  He chops it up, and swaps out the drums for a more traditional breakbeat.  But he is definitely trying to make it sound like he recorded this in the studio with Mercury, which is weird.  He'll say "Freddie Mercury, where you at, yo?" and then some old acapella of Mercury's vocals will play, as if the two were standing right next to each other in the vocal booth and 'Clef just cued him to sing his next line. The whole thing just feels like a strange endeavor.

And why is it on DreamWorks of all labels?  I mean, it probably took DreamWorks to buy Queen's name, and release it like a new Queen record (it even later wound up on one of their greatest hits albums, if you can believe it).  But Wyclef and Pras were signed to Columbia, and EMI had Queen.  DreamWorks were involved in this instance because this song is from the soundtrack to Small Soldiers, a CGI children's movie about action figures coming to life in a kid's bedroom, like Toy Story.  If I ever get the chance to interview Joe Dante someday, I'm just dying to ask him if he insisted that his film needed a song by Queen and Wyclef on it and made it happen; or if he even had any say in his movie's soundtrack at all?  What was he thinking as he saw this project unfold?

But yeah, this is already a long post, and I've got so much more to go into, so let's keep things moving.  Like I said at the top, there are multiple versions of this 1998 cover, with or without Canibus.  This came out just as Canibus was blowing up (and before his career just as quickly deflated), so there was still a craze to own every 12" single with his name on it.  But you had to be careful to get the version with the run-out groove PRO-A-5118 instead of the one with PRO-A-510, because that one doesn't have Canibus on it.

See, originally, the song featured Wyclef, Pras and Free.  That's what's on the soundtrack and the original single.  I said that Wyclef just mumbles some lines, which he does through the bulk of this song and much of his output; but to be fair, he does have a full rap verse on here, as do the other two.  These guys are pretty all over the map.  Wyclef starts shouting out "the kids on the blocks shootin' at the crooked cops," which gets cut out of most versions, because Small Soldiers is a children's movie like Toy Story, and what was he thinking?  But really, nothing he says in one line connects to what he says in the next, talking about Idi Amin, then doing a Woody Woodpecker impression.  It's like he's just stringing together buzz words for an easy pay check.

Meanwhile, Pras and Free are dropping terrible lines like, "believe me, you gotta let me fly like R. Kelly. Bite another dust with my man Freddie Mercury," and "I don't go down 'cause I'm a vegetarian," respectively.  I really don't understand why Free didn't go back and say write me another line that isn't a third grade schoolyard blowjob joke for my big major label debut.  Because it's painfully obvious, with bars like, "practically, I tactically destroy; deploy more decoys than a presidential convoy," that she's just delivering another verse written for her by Canibus.  Another "Patriots."  I was interested in her as an artist and hoping for an album until I realized she was being puppeteered like A+.

Anyway, that's the version on the soundtrack album.  This 12" features a bunch of remixes and alternate versions, including some where Pras is taken off the song and substituted with Canibus, who was the only reason to care about this song in 1998.  So, first version on the 12", LP Version, is the same as on the soundtrack, but the Small Soldiers Video Mix is the one with Canibus.  Yes, there was a music video for this song, too.  I never saw it back in the day - I don't think the Hip-Hop shows ever played it; but it's on Youtube.  It's a weird, silly video where Wyclef is a security guard at a wax museum with a display dedicated to Queen.  None of this has anything to do with Small Soldiers, by the way; but at least the video doesn't try to keep up the charade that Queen actually somehow recorded this track with Wyclef; they recognize that he's passed on.  Anyway, a dance party breaks out because this is a music video after all, and the Freddie Mercury statue gets stolen.  So Wyclef goes on a secret spy mission to recover it.

You actually need to know that to understand this version of the song, because otherwise Canibus's verse doesn't make sense.  A lot of it is him doing his typical, complex battle rap with exotic imagery schtick like, "My rhymes cut through the radio waves like machetes; the predator becomes the prey in the Serengeti."  But he's the only one who plays along with the movie saying, "I'm a small soldier."  And later he talks about how, "I breach national security purposely to safely return the statue of Freddie Mercury."  I'm honestly not sure if he wrote that verse on the set of the music video to make it actually relate to the song, or if maybe the director heard that line in Canibus's rap and was inspired to make the video about that.  It's got to be one of those; it's too much to be a sheer coincidence.

But either way, it's kind of a shame, because Canibus spoils his own verse with these crazy, silly tangents.  You just can't get lost in a fierce, sick lyrical attack when he's talking about Small Soldiers.  But the whole mess has way too much talk about shooting and murdering people for little kids to just enjoy it as a silly theme song to their movie like Will Smith's "Here Come the Men In Black."  So it's like a song for nobody.  In the music video, the song is censored to pieces, with long stretches of protracted silence over the instrumental, which just adds to the feel that Wyclef is half asleep the whole time.

Anyway, there's also a Team 1 Black Rock Star Main Pass mix on here.  It's the Pras version again, but this time with the instrumental varied up a bit, thanks to Wyclef's cousin, Jerry Wonda.  It's a little more interesting, because "Another One Bites the Dust" is so over-familiar even the first time you hear it; but the bulk of the song is still based around the same basic bassline and all.  There are also both instrumentals, a clean edit of the Black Rock mix and an A Cappella (With Pras, not Canibus).  Now in the days of discogs, it's easy; but back in the 90s, it was tricky to find this particular 12" version with Canibus instead of the normal one.  Unfortunately, now that the Canibus craze has passed, I can also see it wasn't really worth it.  But at least it makes for an interesting curiosity piece.  The Small Soldiers soundtrack also featured a song with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Black Flag, Rage Against the Machine and Red Hot Chili Peppers... and I believe they actually did record it together for real.  I don't know if anybody actually likes that song either, but what else was DreamWorks going to do with their excess millions?  Give to charity?

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